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Lakeland Ledger: Florida at Forefront of Internet-Based Education

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

With the right choices and plans, Florida is in a position to take a leading national role in Internet-based higher education, according to a national consultant.

But the state must make decisions on how to best move forward in the rapidly growing area of online learning, which educators say isn’t the way of the future — it’s happening now.

Later this month, the Board of Governors for the State University System will take up recommendations on how to proceed.

“You’re starting from an incredible position of strength,” said Robert Lytle, a partner in the Parthenon Group consulting firm hired to help the board determine what to do next. “Florida already has a very, very robust online system.”

The board’s Strategic Planning Committee will offer suggestions at a two-day meeting that starts Jan. 16 at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The committee heard from Lytle’s company last month after the Boston-based group did a four-month study paid for with about $300,000 the Legislature allocated.

The sprawling, ever-changing realm of college courses taught via the Internet is a valuable part of higher education. On that, state education leaders seem to agree.

Exactly how that effort should be channeled, operated, allocated and administered is another story altogether. Opinions seem to vary widely, based on input gathered from around the state.

“Online learning is not a silver bullet,” Lytle said. “But it is absolutely here to stay, and the preferred way of learning for many.”

The route the state ultimately takes will impact each institution of higher education in the state.

Robert Gidel, chairman of fledgling Florida Polytechnic University’s board of trustees, said plans for the Lakeland-based school will be Internet savvy and include online coursework.

“The idea of online alternatives lowers the all-in cost of degree programs, expands access to the best teachers and thought, and enhances the learning experience,” he said. “The poly will seek access to specialized online courses for our students and hope someday to provide courses for others.”

The primary objectives pinpointed by the Parthenon study are to:

Expand access: Students who previously could not attend in-person classes could move forward with their educations.

Reduce costs to the system and students: Less infrastructure, time saved, a boost in capacity and a way to attract out-of-state students.

Strengthen the connection between the labor market and higher education: Align new programs with what’s needed in the job market and give a broader scaling ability for job-force-demanded degree programs.

Enhance the student experience: Flexibility in scheduling courses, the ability to learn at different paces and enhanced quality programs through digital presentations.

Florida’s higher education system is overflowing with students and still reeling from overall budget cuts last year of about $300 million. Expansion of online learning, combined with maximization of existing programs, offers the state a popular way to provide expanded degree programs at a far lower cost.

Historically referred to by educators as “distance learning,” the method has drawn in about half of the 330,000 students in the state’s system. Kim Wilmath, director of communications for the Board of Governors, said 52 percent, or 170,901 students, took at least one distance-learning course in 2011-12.

During that same period, 27,028 students took online courses only, she said.

Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican and speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, initiated talk of an ambitious online plan about a year ago.

A fan of online degree programs, he told the board he wanted to open the topic up for consideration.

Florida Poly became Florida’s 12th state university last year, and now Weatherford has suggested No. 13 be a solely distance-learning institution.

From those talks came the decision to hire consultants to examine Florida’s options. Lytle said there are four routes Florida could take, and his group has drawn up 10-year plans for each of those options. The state could decide to:

Offer programs institution by institution, with offerings in each developed to best suit the school.

Offer institutional collaboration with system-wide, online degree programs that would be developed under the direction from a coordinating body, such as the Board of Governors or the Florida Department of Education.

Tap a lead institution to use one or more schools to drive online program development.

Create a new, online university by launching a brand-new state university to take the lead on expansion of lower-cost models.

The board could select one of the four options, select more than one, combine several or reject them all.

The Parthenon Group spent about four months on the study, and its examination of the state’s online offerings included input from the Board of Governors, Florida Virtual Campus, individual schools and the Florida Department of Education.

Several educators were asked to provide input and sent letters, including Ronald Toll, chairman of the State University System Council of Academic Vice Presidents. He wrote that there are “very serious concerns” about setting up an online-only school.

That choice could be costly, introduce competition with existing programs, cause delays in accreditation, reduce graduation rates and cause complications in transfers, he said.

Ed Moore, president of the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida, said his 20 independent schools were ready to welcome a partnership. That group includes four in Polk County — Florida Southern College, Southeastern University, Warner University and Webber International University.

Member schools that have online programs in place would welcome working with state institutions to boost online learning, Moore said.

“We were initially enthusiastic in our discussions with the Parthenon Group,” he said. “As time passed and drafts evolved, we were disappointed that the final … report outlined no role for independent higher education in the options described and did not explore deeply what is really going on already in Florida.”

While many questions remain, consultant Lytle told board members that Florida, unlike many other states, does not need to address the task of getting courses offered online.

“It’s not about getting everybody online,” he said. “It’s about getting the state in a position to have the best online modality experience, and the best processes underlying it.”

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